The question is asked regularly by readers, and is hotly discussed within the Caravan World office. And, while everyone is interested, even caravan manufacturers disagree on the answer. Hard-top caravan or pop-top: which is the more economical to tow?
COMPARING LIKE FOR LIKE
The problem with this question is that it’s hard to compare like with like. Few manufacturers produce otherwise identical full-size and pop-top caravans. Even if they do, none run back-to-back tests over the same route with identical tow cars under the same conditions. That’s where Caravan World stepped in.
Coronet Caravans has been owned and run by industry stalwart Andrew Phillips since 1991, and recently updated its entire range, with the FS2 – ‘Fashion Statement 2’ – currently its built-seller.
While available in 15 separate models ranging in external body length from 5.05m (16ft 6in) to 7.07m (23ft), the most popular FS2 is the 5.95m (19ft 6in – external length) FS2-5950 that is available as either a pop-top or full-height caravan, making a like-for-like comparison possible.
The only fly in the ointment was, being a semi-custom builder, few Coronets leave the Bayswater premises in exactly the same spec, so the two FS2 models available for our test varied slightly in their specification.
The FS2 pop-top was in base spec, which meant it came with a G&S 100x50mm SupaGal chassis with an overlay axle, a full rear ensuite and Al-Ko electronic stability control as standard, selling for $49,990, delivered in Victoria.
As we wanted this to be a true comparative test, we had Coronet increase the pop-top’s weight by filling its water tanks, so it tipped the scales around 100kg less than the full height van. Measured on Coronet’s own scales, they weighed 2165kg and 2261kg respectively – an actual difference of 96kg. Close enough.
All eyes were on the diesel pumps when we topped up at the BP at Dromana, 87.7km from our starting point, after a route that comprised about 50 per cent towing on suburban main roads, 16% on hilly country in the Dandenong Ranges, and 34% of freeway towing, travelling at, or as close as possible to, the posted speed limits.
We expected the heavier Discovery to consume more fuel than the Territory, despite towing the 100kg lighter and 540mm lower FS2 pop-top, and that was the case. It took 14.63L at 148.9c/L to refill it, resulting in a fuel consumption of 5.99km/L, or 16.69L/100km.
In contrast, the lighter Territory with the same engine, towing the heavier and higher FS2 hard-top caravan, took 13.66L to fill, which worked out at 6.42km/L, or 15.57L/100km.
It was a slightly confusing result that suggested the choice of a pop-top or a full height caravan was less important than the choice of tow vehicle, provided that vans were legally capable of being hauled by the range of compact, cross-over 4WDs, such as the Territory, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota Kluger, Subaru Outback, Kia Sorrento, etc., all of which are rated to tow a braked trailer weighing 2500-2700kg, depending on the model. In this case, the 3500kg-capable Discovery was overkill, as would be a LandCruiser or Nissan Patrol.
Then we ran further down the Mornington Peninsula to Sorrento for some photography, swapped tow vehicles and headed back to the BP Dromana to top up again.
We followed the same route in reverse to the BP Bayswater, but this time the roadworks around the suburb of Cranbourne that had made our first trip a frustrating stop-start exercise in this area were replaced by mid-to-late-afternoon peak-hour traffic and the run uphill to Belgrave was longer, so we were unsure of the impact on fuel consumption that this would make.
On re-filling, the relative fuel usage between the Territory and Discovery was maintained, despite the Territory towing the pop-top for the return trip. It covered 7.96km/L, or 12.56L/100km, compared with the Discovery’s 6.89km/L (14.51L/100km).
Then, to measure the true difference between the pop-top and hard-top vans, we added the combined figures for each, regardless of tow vehicle and averaged them for the total 170km round trip.
The Coronet FS2 pop-top behind the two different tow vehicles travelled an average of 6.96km on each litre of diesel (14.37L/100km), whereas the FS2 hard-top travelled 6.65km on each litre (15.07L/100km).
THE BOTTOM LINE
Thus, the full-height Coronet caravan on our test required just under 0.7L more fuel on average for each 100km travelled than the otherwise identical pop-top which, at the 148.9c/L we paid, represents about $1/100km – or, for a 1000km trip, $10.
To put it another way, that’s a Macca’s meal deal or two coffees every 1000km, which is two or more days of travel for most people. Is the convenience of a ready-to-go full height van worth that to you?
Regardless of the fuel figures, there are a lot of other things that should influence your choice of pop-top or full-height caravan – we’ve listed some pros and cons below.
THE PROS & CONS
- Weigh slightly less (around 80-100kg, depending on make/model)
- Usually have slightly lower ball weight
- Slightly cheaper to purchase (about $3000-$4000, like for like)
- Easer to store in carport/garage
- Easier to manoeuvre in treed areas
- Quicker to cool and offer better ventilation in tropical climates
- Take longer to set-up (unlatch, release awning, pop roof, unzip vents) and pack up
- Not as warm in cold weather
- More physical effort involved in setting up, particularly if roof-mounted air-conditioning and solar panels are fitted
- Some restriction of floorplan variety
- Reduced upper storage/cupboard space
- Resale value usually less than similarly-sized full-height caravan
- Full-Height Caravans
- Instant set-up
- Greater variety of possible layouts
- More thermally efficient in cold and hot weather
- More upper cupboard and wardrobe space
- Generally better isolation of ensuite from the rest of the van
- Generally better resale value due to greater demand for this style of van
- Extra height may limit storage options
- Reduced access to some areas with low branches
- Usually have slightly higher ball weight
- Slightly heavier
- Higher initial purchase price
The full test appeared in Caravan World #532 December 2014. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!